Now Here’s An Idea: Hospitality In Higher Education

I’m devouring The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal, by Parker Palmer, Arthur Zajonc, and Megan Scribner right now. It’s a good read. It’s a thought-provoking read. It’s an inspiring read. It gives me hope.

One premise put forth by Palmer is the idea that a key virtue in higher education that is not always present is hospitality. He says it much better than I can summarize, so here goes his argument:

Learning spaces need to be hospitable spaces not merely because kindness is a good idea but because real education requires rigor. In a counterintuitive way, hospitality supports rigor by supporting community, and the proof can be found in everyday classroom experience.

Pedagogical rigor requires more than a professor doing a rigorous solo act, which can feel more like rigor mortis from where the student sits. A classroom becomes rigorous when a student is able to raise his or her hand and say, “I disagree with what you just said, professor.” Or, at even greater personal risk, “I disagree with what my friend in the second row just said.” Or, pulling out all the stops, “Excuse me, I don’t understand anything that’s been said in here for the past two weeks. Could someone please explain?”

Admitting ignorance and encountering diverse viewpoints on facts and interpretations require us to clarify our assertions, explain ourselves at deeper levels and perhaps, mirabile dictu, even change our minds. Professors who encourage student behaviors such as these invite true intellectual rigor, the kind that emerges from a community of inquiry and is far more educational than a nonstop diet of “rigorous” lectures. From where the students sit, these behaviors are also riskier than keeping one’s head down and taking notes. That kind of behavior is not going to happen in a class that lacks hospitality, a class where people feel too threatened to say anything that might get them crosswise with the professor or other students. (pgs. 29-30)

I read this passage and I found myself asking this: What would an entire university dedicated to hospitality, as Palmer describes, look like? How might it be organized? Might it be a “learning paradigm college” as John Tagg calls for? Might we engage in assessment as an act of care, as I keep yammering about? Might we look at academic disciplines differently, at credits and seat time and accreditation and transcripts and requirements and learning outcomes and and and … and all that, differently? I am thinking that the simple (yet complex) virtue of hospitality, well-developed and enacted across an institution, could in fact result in a transformation of the academy, as the subtitle of this text suggests.

And I am also thinking that hospitality is not at all a bad place for true renewal and transformation in higher education to begin. In fact, it might be the only place from which people feel invited and welcome to contribute to real change.


Because I Care

Read why, here: Assessment as an Act of Care

This guy (from the Comments) does too!

Care is a great reason for assessment

Posted by Alexander Freund , Prof./Hist. at UWinnipeg on August 27, 2011 at 12:15pm EDT

I like Ms Booth’s idea of care as a reason for assessment. The question is not only one of whether to assess, however, but also of how to assess. If we believe that learning is the product of mutual work between students and teachers and must be based on students’ choices about what and how they want to learn, and if we believe that learning comes through experience rather than instruction, then we need to involve our students in the process of assessment.

Yah, What They Said!

I can't find a way to credit this picture because I can't seem to find its original source! Research conundrum!

A few of my favorite selections from chapters in Field Guide to Academic Leadership (edited by Robert Diamond), one of our books for the Assessment Leadership Academy:

“The most appropriate solutions to the problems lie in shared commitment to and responsibility for good practice.” ~Michael Theall, Evaluation and Assessment – An Institutional Context

“The opportunity for critical reflection — a chance to put our strong academic values of systematic inquiry and questioning of assumptions to use — is lost in the desire to get the thing done.”   ~ John Wergin, Academic Program Review

“…change is a scholarly act (Ramaley, 2000) … Informed, respectful, thoughtful dialogue is the greatest learning tool of any organization today, and few of us know how to do it.” ~ Judith Ramaley, Moving Mountains – Institutional Culture and Transformational Change

Singing My Heart Out

You know that phrase, “Preaching to the choir?” As I read more and more of the literature about assessment in higher ed (theory, empirical research, best practices, models) assigned in the WASC Assessment Leadership Academy, that phrase keeps coming out of my mouth: preaching to the choir. I am in the choir! See – here I am, singing my loudest about teaching, learning, and assessment in higher education (bottom row / left side: white hair, glasses, beard):

Thanks to University of Rochester for allowing use of a picture of their choir.

(Ok, that’s really not me and I am really not in *that* choir. But it’s a great picture of a choir, from a university, so it seemed appropriate.)

For me the real question becomes:  Nice and all, but how do we reach the congregation? And even more so, how do we reach the greater community about the value of wondering if our students learn what we want them to learn?

Here’s a perfect example, a lovely little song in Marilee Bresciani’s Outcomes-Based Academic and Co-Curricular Review that I believe I, myself, have sung around these halls on more than one occasion:

In many good practice institutions, the expectation was made clear that assessment is not an “add on” — that program review is not a process that is set aside, to be thought of only once every five, seven, or ten years. It should be a process of reflection that is built into day-to-day work. In this model, time is not taken away from teaching, it is invested in improving teaching. Time is not taken away from providing services, it is invested in improving services. Time is not taken away from discipline research, the research informs the design and assessment of student learning. (p. 134)

Preaching to the choir! I know it; I get it. I’m sold!

Creating A Campus Culture That Values Assessment, an article that summarizes an online seminar led by Linda Suskie, speaks to my concern about engaging my campus in a way that helps us all value assessment. Suskie’s ideas as summarized in this article include: focus on teaching and learning, innovation and collaboration, campus culture and people, and promoting and rewarding good practices.  Check it out – these are good ideas. These will help me sing my song, and sing loudly and with confidence.

I also need to keep the idea of the universal change principle in mind: learning must precede change. (I am a teacher; I should know this!) In the chapter Leadership & Change by David Lick in the Field Guide to Academic Leadership, I am reminded to ask:

  • What learning must take place before this change effort can be successfully implemented?

When I can answer and address this, then the song I want to sing about teaching, learning, assessment — and the value of attending to all three in an integrated and meaningful way — might just become a choral masterpiece. I am working on that, but in the meantime, I will keep singing my heart out, one stanza at a time.

Preparing For The Inevitable Shock of Change

Marylhurst University Bell Tower

Let me recommend that you PrattleNoggers out there (yeah you — you know who you are) take the time to read this open letter to George Philip, President of the State University of New York at Albany, written by Gregory Petsko from Brandeis University, on the importance of the Liberal Arts and humanities (different entities, BTW)  in a college education. Petsko argues for more than a well-rounded education, however; he argues for carefully attending to the social and cultural responsibilities of universities in general. This one paragraph from his letter perhaps best exemplifies this very responsibility:

Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. [italics added]

Wow – what it means to be human?!? Yeah, that’s a biggie!

Here’s another excerpt from Petsko’s letter that reminds me why such depth and breadth of learning is so very important:

I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. [italics added] And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained.

We need students to be prepared for change, not just for jobs.  As David Brooks has written, studying the humanities will make a person more employable because they will be able to read and write well, will deeply understand human emotion, can think analogically, and can “befriend” what he calls “The Big Shaggy,” behaviors and phenomena that are difficult to explain. Of the latter, Brooks writes:

The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

As is most often the case, none of these excerpts alone makes the case as well as the whole. Read the wholes — the original texts — and get into the depth and breadth of Petsko’s and Brooks’ arguments.  And then when you’re ready, relish your own education for all that it’s worth, just as I have.

An Open Letter Of Thanks To My Colleague

Last night I had the honor of attending the lecture of Mary Catherine Bateson, a lovely event orchestrated by Dr. Jenny Sasser. Students, alumni, community guests, faculty, and staff filled Flavia Salon to hear Bateson speak about her experiences and perspectives, her books, and her ideas about the importance of engaging and supporting elders in our society.  Oh – and an organization she founded,

Bateson’s ideas truly resonated with Marylhurst’s mission of providing access to learning for adults (as she herself pointed out – in fact, she had studied us!). Though I hate to just provide sound-bites and take such lovely ideas out of the significant contexts in which they were presented, she did say some really neat things, including:

  • “Experience is the best teacher – but only if you do your homework.”
  • “We are not what we know, but what we are willing to learn.”
  • “I’m still me. I’m the person I’ve been becoming my whole life.”

I was reminded once again about the very special work we get to do each day here, together, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Thank you, thank you, Jenny, for your work in bringing her here – I am grateful for the gift, and I hope she can come back soon!

PS, Readers: For a good sense of Bateson’s work and what we experienced last night with her, check out some posts from her blog, such as Learning to teach, Teaching to learn


Today, PrattleNog features a guest post from Lorrie Ranck. Lorrie and I have been colleagues and friends since 1996, when we both started teaching at a college in the Bay Area that provided each of us several “bumps” in our professional road.  Those bumps were likely responsible, in part, for the formation of our close and enduring friendship, so although some of them were pretty jarring, I am grateful that they occurred.

Today, Lorrie writes about other kinds of bumps. Enjoy!


Recently, at a job interview, I was asked a question about how I, as a senior member of the leadership team, would handle the challenges of the recent restructure of the academic division. Or, put more informally by a faculty member on the committee,  “you know, the bumps in the road.”  While I had anticipated this question, the “bumps in the road” comment triggered a recent experience and a way to illustrate my approach.

One of the things I really enjoy is bicycling with my son:  when he was younger and smaller, he has a nifty seat right up front and we could easily talk with one another during the ride.  The thing is, every bicycle outing is an adventure: new roads, different smells, all kinds of vehicles and people to observe. The world is a dynamic and ever-changing place and he seems to soak it all in. Inevitably, we hit a few bumps along the way.  Most times, unless it is significant, I hardly notice since I am looking out for traffic. What I love, though, is his reaction: he giggles, says “bump!” and sometimes, depending on the size, his eyes widen and he shouts, “yahoo!” Then we laugh together or talk about the different kinds of things that make for bumps: small rocks, potholes, speed bumps, etc.

Thanks to team_tiara for making this image on Wikimedia

To translate this into more practical use for educational leadership, I focused on three areas:

  1. Be attentive. The bumps may not be something you experience directly, they do, though, matter to the individual who brings it forward.
  2. Our response to these “bumps” says a lot about how we interact with the world; it reflects everything from our years of life experience to our disposition to our emotional and physical state at that particular moment and more. I would bet that the older and wiser we become the more critical we are of bumps, challenges and obstacles. We do not like them. In fact, we often do all we can avoid them. Are you the type of person who drives to the side of the speed bump? Perhaps, you are the one who slows down and takes it straight on. Maybe you are one of those folks who don’t even see the bump and just flattened your tire which presents a whole other set of challenges. Just about any way you look at it, over time, we become skeptics and reticent to change because we have seen or experienced it before. So, while every bump is not a  “yahoo!” what would it be like if our first reaction was less critical and more productive? Less avoidance and more slow and deliberate? More proactive, less reactionary?
  3. Follow up. How do we talk with one another about the challenges? In what ways do we give voice to being uncomfortable or our uncertainty about a bump in the road? Is there opportunity for preflection and reflection? What voices are at the table when talking about the bumps in the road?

Just a few questions to ponder during your next bike adventure or institutional change.